Creator Interview: James Turner of Nil, Rex Libris and Warlord of Io

-Interview by Kevin de Vlaming

Known for combining high brow intellectual concepts with fantastical high-impact art and accessible, fun stories, James Turner’s work in comics has defined him as one of Canada’s most innovative contributors to the medium.

James Turner

His breakthrough graphic novel Nil: A Land Beyond Belief, released in 2005, served up a poignant vision of a nihilistic dystopia marked with a sharp sense of humour not often found in books with such lofty subject matter. Later that same year, Turner began an ongoing series chronicling the metafictional adventures of a thousand year old librarian bad-ass. The series, titled Rex Libris, ran from 2005 to 2008. Rex Libris  and Nil (both published by the indie comic publisher Slave Labor Graphics) were regarded highly by critics, and helped build Turner as a celebrated name in Canadian independent comics.

So why is it that his latest series, Warlord of Io, was cut before the first official issue even hit the stands?

The answer to that has everything to do with Diamond Comics Distributors and the new minimum sales order policies they implemented earlier this year. DCD is known to many as the largest comic book distributor in North America. Its virtual monopoly on comic book  circulation guarantees that when Diamond introduces a new business process, there are going to be widespread ripples throughout the industry in North America.

Essentially, what they did was increase the minimum advance sales order from $1,500 to $2,500 US dollars. If DCD does not receive at least $2,500 in orders for a given comic, it will not distribute that title at all – thus forcing many indie comic creators and publishers out of the market.

It was Dan Vado , owner and president of Slave Labor Graphics, who rang up Turner earlier this year to break the news to him that his comic was declined distribution by DCD. Since the announcement was made public in May, there has been a flurry of discussion surrounding Warlord of Io on blogs and newswires across the internet. Some suggest Warlord of Io is an ominous portent of where the industry  is headed, while others are simply peeved that they might never get to see the series in physical, hard copy form.

Turner took the time to field some questions for the Fabler about Warlord of Io, the state of the industry,  and whether a Rex Libris movie and/or animated series is still, in fact, in development.  He was also indulgent enough to answer a fanboy question that I’ve been wondering about Nil for some time (I admitted to him that I count Nil as among my personal all-time favorite graphic novels).

The transcript of the interview is below:

KD: Though I suppose it means this interview will be moving chronologically backwards, let’s start by talking about Warlord of Io.

Learn to fly, trogslug!

What was the initial pitch for Warlord of Io?

JT: Spoiled, rich kid rocker inherits planet of ruthless warlords, and things go horribly wrong.

(for more about the concept behind Warlord of Io, check out the Warlord of Io FAQ on Turner’s official website)

KD: How did you plan to approach it differently than your previous works?

JT: Well, I wanted to make it faster paced and more accessible to a general audience. Unlike Rex, I intended it to be a mini-series from the get-go.

KD: Obviously you’re in a position where DCD (its decisions, its position as a monopoly in comic book distribution) has had a significant impact on your work as a comic creator. What are your thoughts regarding the experience, and the effects Diamond is currently impressing upon the market?

JT: I don’t know what Diamond’s financial books are like, but I would imagine the recession is hitting them hard like everyone else. Comic book sales overall are down. They may have a monopoly but it’s of a withering market. The raised minimums are meant to cut costs and protect their bottom line, which is perfectly understandable. Businesses that don’t do that don’t remain businesses very long.

To be honest the greatest surprise came not from being cancelled, but from being cancelled so early. I knew that launching an ongoing independent title these days is no easy feat, so I intended the series to be limited in length in the hope that it could finish the story before the sales numbers fell off. Either I miscalculated with the content or the market is even tougher than I’d thought. At any rate, the first official issue never hit the stands.

The bottom line here is that the pamphlet format is becoming a less viable platform for small independents. I don’t think this will be as great a problem as it might have been thanks to the internet. Artists can easily float their ideas online. Those who succeed in building an audience will attract publishers who will print collections of their work. I can see that as a possible new paradigm, but with technology advancing and changing so quickly, who really knows?

One problem with the online only model is that trying to monetize material on the net is a difficult proposition because piracy is so easy. Films, videos, music, comics, books, can all be downloaded. It’s just information. The first official issue of Warlord of Io (the follow up to the one-shot) was pirated and put on torrents within a week of it being available online, and It was only 99 cents. This suggests that advertising and merchandise are going to become key for creators in the future. At least T-shirts and vinyl dolls can’t be duplicated with the click of a button, but advertising will only be helpful once a large audience has been built.

Warlord of Io

But I’m just guessing here, really. There are people who are already running webcomics who can give you a better picture. I suspect the new break-out comics will start online more and more often.

(I would like to insert a thank-you here to James for his thoroughly presented views on the subject – he raises some interesting points, specifically about where comic books fit into the jigsaw puzzle that is the struggle to make money off of media on the internet.)

KD: Onto Rex Libris. Now that the series is finished, (and the second volume TPB is out, as of June 1st) how do you feel looking back on the run? Did you feel like you accomplished what you set out to do with the title?

JT: Yes and no. There was so much more I wanted to do with the series. I never even made it back to Benzine V to revisit Simon and see what he’d been up to as ruler. On the other hand, I think the potential of the series is clearly shown.

KD: I had heard some time ago about potential plans for a Rex Libris movie, then back last year you announced an animated series that would be airing this year. Where are either/both of these projects at now?

JT: The movie is still in development. Mark Burton is writing the screenplay. The TV animated series was just a flight of fancy, I’m afraid. A hoax. I put disclaimers with it, but somehow the idea took off anyway. Producers take note! People want a Rex Libris TV show. I know I’d watch it.

KD: Since we’re in backwards interview mode, it makes sense to move to a few questions about Nil, your first excursion into graphic novels -

How long did you carry the idea for Nil around in your head before it became a reality as a working project?

JT: That was a while ago now. I think it was percolating, popping in and out of the probability foam, for as many as six months before I started typing it into my computer.

KD: What motivated you to take the leap and put out that first graphic novel? As I understand it, by that point in your career you had already been working as a successful illustrator for quite some time.

JT: I was feeling limited by the illustration format. I wanted to go longer, and expand the scope of what I could cover. Bringing in text and narrative added a new level of interest for me. A whole new playground.

Like going from 2 dimensions to 3, in a way.

KD: This is a question I’ve wanted to ask you since I first read the book  – with Nil, were you inspired at all by Terry Gilliam’s film ‘Brazil’? I’ve personally always likened the tone of both works to each other, something about the ‘cog in a machine trying futilely to work his way out in a dystopic setting’ theme.

I really like the Gilliam film. It’s fabulous, but it wasn’t the inspiration for the book. I’ve always had a fascination with dystopias. I was thinking more of Russian Constructivism when designing the look of it, and the work of el Lissitsky, Rodchenko, and the architect Melnikov. The material itself came from reading history and the general absurdity that underlie politics and human civilization. We’re pretty funny when you think about it.

KD: So as to not completely end the interview with past tense, what are you working on next? In the May interview you did with Newsarama, you mentioned a wariness to approaching any new projects at the time – say it isn’t so!

JT: Ha! Thanks. Nice to know someone cares! My main goal at this point is just to get Warlord of Io finished and out the door. Right now I’m working on some 3d spaceships for it. After that, I don’t know. I’d like to do Hell Lost, but I can’t really afford the time investment. If anything, I’ll probably try to do shorter, smaller, self-contained projects that I can do as a hobbyist, and go from there.

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